An intimate but unauthorized portrait of a great American photographer and filmmaker, Gerald L. Fox’s “Leaving Home, Coming Home — A Portrait of Robert Frank” takes the viewer deep inside his subject’s personal and creative life. This fascinating journey is based on a recent on-camera interview, in which Frank bared perhaps more than he intended. Yet one leaves the film feeling Fox has managed to communicate something important about the real man behind the artist. Arts festivals and quality broadcasters should take notice.
Born in Zurich in 1924 but since 1947 a consummate New Yorker, Frank shuffles around an empty lot, unshaven and wryly inveighing against the yuppies who have invaded his territory. He lives with his second wife, the amiable sculptress June Leaf, between a Greenwich Village apartment and a house in the wilds of Nova Scotia. As he sums it up, “It’s not the pretty or the sweet life, but the real life I looked for and got.”
Jumping back to key moments in his career as a photographer, Fox recalls his black-and-white portraits of working class folk collected in his most famous book “The Americans” and his later images of Welsh coal miners and London bankers. The strength and sensitivity of these extraordinary photographs jump off the screen.
Representing his film work are excerpts from his seminal 1959 “Pull My Daisy,” co-directed with Alfred Leslie as an improvisation on Jack Kerouac’s play “The Beat Generation,” plus snippets from “Me and My Brother” (1969), with beat notables like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and “CS Blues” (1972), about the Rolling Stones but never commercially released because there was “too much Keith, too little Mick.” Though clearly not meant to be a critical evaluation of Frank’s filmmaking, pic misses a golden opportunity to put his experimental work into perspective. Frank’s own comments on the controversy they stirred up at the time would have been invaluable.
As is, a feeling comes across that Frank must have had mixed feelings about co-operating on this docu. On the one hand the extensive interview seems like an intimate testimonial, particularly when he talks about his two dead children, Andrea and Pablo; in other moments he appears irascible and antagonistic to the crew. In the end, this underlying tension — which seems to be part of Frank’s complex character — gives the pic some needed backbone.
Rather than building this lightly structured portrait to a climax of some sort, editor Steve Scales holds the attention by contrasting B&W and color images, photographs and film, the personal and the professional. A sensitively chosen musical comment goes a long way in creating atmosphere.